What makes a workshop?

After the Note To Self performance on Saturday night a friend and I started pondering the different kinds of workshops and workshop processes that are out there. There is a spectrum I think, that stretches from quite directed/directive processes, where there is little scope for being changed or swayed by content that comes from the participants, to very open, responsive processes.

My projects are closer to the latter, with an emphasis on material being generated through content ideas offered by participants. I will often have musical structures in mind, or place restrictions on their offers (such as modes or pitch groups or time signatures, or specific ways to start or finish), and I may even have some pre-written sections that need to be learned; but there will still be large sections of the work that are unknown at the start of the project, to be realised through the creative process.

Directed processes have their merits – they offer very tangible experiences to the participants and can give a sense of being part of something ‘official’ or endorsed, somehow. In music, it can be a sense of having learned ‘real’ music, as oposed to just ‘making stuff up’. From an audience point of view (especially for an uncritical, non-educator audience) it can seem like the directed process is the more successful of the two approaches, as the results are often more ‘adult’ in their delivery, with less open to chance or possibility. Process can be a difficult thing to take into account, or credit (for the uninitiated), if you are only exposed to the outcome of a project.

Today I worked with the Sartory String Quartet, the Australian Youth Orchestra’s string quartet that will be resident in Albury at the Murray Conservatorium for the next 8 weeks or so. We will be doing two separate education projects with local primary school children as part of their residency, so today’s session was an introduction to the way I work in this context, and to get them thinking about what the children will get out of the project, and what they themselves would like to get out of the project.

We talked first about what a workshop might entail- any kind of workshop – and in two interconnected circles listed the kinds of learning and teaching styles that you might expect to find in a workshop, compared to in a more traditional teaching environment. In fact it was a trick question, because as our Venn diagram grew, and we began to question the words that were being applied to either teaching or workshops, someone made the observation that in fact all these teaching and learning styles were simply hallmarks of good teachers, regardless of whether the learning environment was a workshop or a more formal setting.

We also discussed the qualities and skills that make a good chamber musician. I suggested (and they agreed) that someone who had spent years and years working in a practice room and was technically and musically brilliant would not necessarily have the skills to be a good chamber or orchestral musician. What are the skills and qualities beyond musicianship and technique that are required?

The list we made was long, and included listening, eye contact, working in a non-competitive way, humility, honoring the music, staying focused and present in the moment, and open to what each moment brings. The group also highlighted the importance of being aware of the energy in a group, of giving energy to each other through the way they play and communicate in rehearsals and performance.

These are skills and qualities that are achievable by even the most novice musicians and performers, given an environment that supports and nurtures these skills. They are communication skills, and they are the focus of what we hope to achieve in a creative workshop setting, as we go through the process of creating a piece of original music together.

I think it is incredibly important in workshop settings that there is an exchange taking place, and that the adult musicians are not purely doing this in order to ‘give’, or to ‘contribute’, or to be a good citizen. Those are important and worthy motivations, but it is also important to feel a sense of connection with your musical self. The more excitement and satisfaction we feel in the work we create in a workshop setting, the more mutually beneficial the whole process is – for the workshop leaders, the participants, and the audience.

Ideally, as musicians, we take on many roles. We perform the music of other people, we perform we have created. We perform music created by others that we have had a role in influencing and shaping – perhaps it has been written for us. We create music with others as a member of a group. We perform as members of large ensembles, as well as as soloists or chamber musicians. We perform music that is written down, as well as music that is more ephemeral in nature. The thinking process and skills we utilise for each of these surely remains unchanged, regardless of the age of the people we are working with, or their levels of ability in music. The content will change, as will the language we use to communicate. The rapport and familiarity we have with the group will determine the communication style we use, and the level of musical intuition we enjoy. But the thinking process and skills utilised in each of those musical interactions need not change.

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2 comments so far

  1. Rebecca on

    Very, very interesting as is the fact that I am posting this comment when I am actually meant to be working on my MA project. Procrastination is a wonderous thing but then again maybe it’s a part of the process!

    I agree that both styles of workshop have their merits; however I am interested in the longer term benefits of children working with artists, and in this context I wonder how the two styles of workshop would stack up. My feeling at this point is that children feel more ownership and have more lasting memories of the open and responsive variety, even though there may be more short term satisfaction with a polished outcome as a result of a more directed workshop experience.

    My interest is in achieving a polished outcome through an open responsive style of workshop, where children are given the opportunity to work alongside professional artists adopting the artists’ process. But this of course takes time, which I find is the greatest inhibitor to this being achieved. I also believe that this is why so many workshops are directive in nature. A fabulous outcome that will keep everybody happy, (especially parents and often even funding bodies,) is more easily possible in a short, cheaper and less complicated directed workshop.

    A bit of a ramble in response to big topic that requires a lot more time. Something I don’t have right now. Back to the MA.

  2. musicwork on

    A directed workshop is also safer – more predictable in its outcome, less demanding perhaps on the part of the leader to find a response in the moment. In the very open, responsive, flexible environment you describe, you can’t plan it all in advance. That is not always a comfortable feeling, and perhaps this aspect is another inhibitor.

    I also think that we need to be constantly challenging ourselves to stay in our ‘artist’ head-space in a workshop, to keep approaching things in as artistic a way as possible. It is part of the discipline of the work to be true to the art that is at its heart, rather than to go with options that feel more expedient. Risk and chance and relinquishing control are important parts of the artistic process.

    (little rhyme at the end there unintended).


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